Heavensward is the expansion to last year’s critically acclaimed PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV. Adding several new dungeons, abilities–including the ability to take flight–and Jobs to come to grips with, Heavensward would already be the most significant content update the game has yet seen.
But then there’s the story: the main scenario has moved to Ishgard, Dravania, and other northern Eorzea settings for a 45- to 60-hour campaign to rival most standalone RPGs. Through in a new race (the Au Ra, a race of humanoid demons featuring bulk males and petite females), and you’ve got one of the biggest value propositions in gaming–to say nothing of the extremely high quality of the base game itself.
A small warning: Although care was taken not to reveal spoilers, there are a few in this review for A Realm Reborn and the story that precedes Heavensward.
Carrying on from the core Final Fantasy XIV experience, this expansion starts off with the main-character Scions on the run after you were blamed for the assassination of Nanamo, the sultana of Ul’dah. You travel to the northern realm of Coerthas, where you finally get permission to enter the notoriously closed, isolated city of Ishgard, which has been sealed away from visitors for centuries due to the Dragonsong War. This war, between the citizens of Ishgard and the great wyrm Nidhogg’s army, is the crux of Heavensward’s early narrative beats. I do not want to cover the storyline too much, as it will be to easy to spoil some of it by even just describing areas you visit, but I will confidently say that Heavensward carries one of the best Final Fantasy storylines in a very long time, with some amazing tributes to previous games. The story carries on even after you have seemingly resolved the main conflict, with one of the best tributes and twists in a Final Fantasy game in a long time.
Upon arrival to Ishgard, one of the landmark locations in Heavensward, you’ll notice the city isn’t the grand, rich institution the rest of the world thinks it is. Homeless line the lower streets looking for food and warmth to survive the night. Denizens live in constant fear of dragon attack. A faith-based ruling body adorned in extravagant architecture and the elite of society who occupy the city’s higher tiers contrast sharply with its darker aspects. Functionally, the city is massive and takes some time to navigate; fortunately, there are plenty of teleport crystals dotted throughout the area, so once you have been round it, navigation becomes a snap.
The map isn’t without issues though, and this extends to the game at large. Main story quests frequently send you inside the manor of one of Ishgard’s ruling houses, but the quest marker in this interior doesn’t show on the larger map. This can happen in multiple zones, not just the manor, but it’s especially noticeable with how often you come back to this spot in Heavensward’s story. It’s only for the first several hours that you might navigation trouble, though. Spend enough time anywhere and things start to click. You’ll start to admire the town for its beauty more than its complexity, for its amazing cathedral and cool-looking airship docks, for how alive it feels with NPCs around living their lives as you do.
As you progress through the story, you will have a choice of two starting areas. One is the Sea of Clouds, an extravagant landscape of floating islands that’s really just the start of Heavensward’s visual variety. The other is the Coerthas Western Highlands, a zone somewhat familiar to players of Final Fantasy XIV’s dismal 1.0 release. It’s not amazing here either, being somewhat visually uninteresting and a pain to navigate on foot, but if anything, it serves to highlight the incredible sights and thoughtful environments to come later.
You will be spending a lot of time in all the new zones due to all the side missions that will pop up, some of which launch side story threads that can last 10 or more quests. Frankly, half your time in this expansion pack isn’t progressing the main story, running dungeons, or grouping up–it’s ploughing through heaps of side quests. This is definitely a game you should take your time playing or you will burn yourself out on the ridiculous amount of content there is to see and experience.
As mentioned earlier, one of the main features of this expansion pack is the addition of flying mounts. These can be unlocked fairly early in the main storyline, though to fly your grand company chocobo or other flyable mounts, such as the almighty Fat Chocobo, you’ll need to tackle a level 52 quest at the holy stables in Ishgard. But Square Enix doesn’t make the feature very easy or accessible beyond that. Before you can fly in any new zone, you need to hunt down 10 aether currents in the (massive!) environment and complete five quests which yield aether currents as rewards. This can be a huge hassle; it often feels like the environments are designed to be intentionally frustrating on foot, with lengthy, confusing excursions around mountains, trees, and what-have-you necessary to reach important points. You’re also given no indication of which quests in the zone will unlock more aether currents. It’s frustrating to follow one quest chain, hoping that the right quest is buried along the thread, only to never find it and have it be the first quest you come across in a different town.
The flying mechanic itself, when unlocked, is very smooth and simple: just execute a double jump on a mount to fly, though you can change this in the settings to auto-fly when you perform a single jump. You can use the Triangle button to ascend and the Circle button to descend, but I found it much easier to point the right analog stick to move about instead. There are several mounts that you will unlock from completing the main storyline, though I don’t think there are any from side quests or achievements, which would have been a nice addition and encouraged exploration.
For those interested in shaking up their playstyle, the game has added three new Jobs, though unlike the original game, these do not have base classes. That means you need to have unlocked Ishgard to play these new Jobs, so you must have beaten the original game’s story and the subsequent story in patches that followed. (Frankly, if you have not finished A Realm Reborn, there’s no reason to purchase this expansion, as you will not be able to access most of the content.) The new jobs are Astrologian, Dark Knight, and Machinist. Astrologian is a healing class with the ability to buff party members with card effects; these cards also give the party damage buffs or cut the mana cost for other Mages. They also have the standard healing spells like Scholar and White Mage, but one of their most interesting abilities is switching stances. They can either occupy a regen stance, which adds regen effects to their basic heals, or occupy a shield stance that adds a shielding effect to the same spells. This makes them very unique compared to the old healing Jobs and great for filling any spot traditionally occupied by a White Mage or Scholar in your raid group.
The Machinist, meanwhile, is a ranged damage dealer, though their damage seems to be very low compared to most of the Jobs and they’re consequently the underdog of the expansion’s new Jobs. In a skilled player’s hands, they can be difference makers, with their ability to deploy damage-dealing turrets and team-supporting automata. They also have a luck-based combo, with each move in the combo have a different percent chance for the next move to deal the best damage possible. Machinists can be quite good in a party setting, but I do hope they get buffed a little in a future patch.
Dark Knight is the new tank class, and if it wasn’t for the amazing damage buffs that Warriors received in Heavensward, they would probably be the best off-tank class for damage. This class also has good damage reduction abilities like the Paladin, making them very flexible when it comes to their role in the party. However, they do have to balance both their MP and TP as resources, which makes them a more advanced job than both Paladin and Warrior. Their damage-boosting ability Darkside costs MP but will increase damage by 15 percent, and they can also use their tank stance Grit while also in the Darkside stance. This is unique for Final Fantasy XIV, which typically makes players dance between stances that serve functionally different purposes and change one’s role. I’m not convinced Square Enix has the balance between these new Jobs, as well as their spot in the bigger picture, figured out yet.
The old Jobs also received a load of new abilities and traits, so much that I will not be covering them all in this review. Nonetheless, as my main job is Monk, I will cover this as an example of what to expect as you level up. After level 50, the EXP curve is not a curve at all; rather, it’s like someone lit a rocket and flew the bar to space. For example, 57 to 60 takes more EXP than leveling up a job from 1 to 50. For your second- and third-choice Jobs that won’t benefit from main story EXP, this is an intimidating grind that will require balancing dungeons, as many unfinished side quests as you can find, and hunting elite monsters out in the field with swarms of players doing the same. A tip? Wait until you finish the main story in an area, then unlock the ability to fly ASAP. Then you can skip all the tricky on-foot navigation and complete side quests faster.
The Job storylines continue from A Realm Reborn as a means of doling out new abilities, and from my experience the quests are pretty easy to tackle. For Monk, my main, I found the new abilities in Heavensward to be disappointing. Chakra’s purpose is essentially making a sound that annoys party members, while Tornado Kick, when used, removes my main buff for attacks. The only really good move for Monks is Form Switch, as this will allow you to gain a stack of Greased Lightning off the bat. Dragon Kick isn’t bad for debuffing bosses, and Elixir Field is a rare moment of area-of-effect power in an expansion that seems to err on the side of weakening such attacks.
You’ll put these abilities to work in Heavensward’s eight new dungeons, and unlike A Realm Reborn, all of the dungeons are a joy to play. From Level 52 onward, you’ll start to encounter these trials both as side quests and smoothly integrated into the main story, with more cinematic flair and situational variety than ever before. Two of these dungeons are reserved for endgame players looking to acquire the game’s best equipment through loot drops and currency in the weeks before Alexander, the new hardcore raid, launches. Thankfully, commendable equipment doesn’t take long to get and you have a chance to get bonus currency if players are new to the dungeon.
Chille Senju says, Shout-out to Ultros server!
There are also two new Extreme difficulty fights against Primal superbosses, though they seem a bit easier than previous Extreme fights–People are already clearing them with odd party compositions. These new Primal fights are against Bismarck and Ravana. Bismarck gives item-level 175 weapons and the Ravana fight gives i190 weapons; after a long drought of meaningful rewards from the Extreme Primals in A Realm Reborn, it’s refreshing to see these fights housing the best weapons currently in the game.
There is also a return of elite monster Hunts in the expansion with the new Centurio Seal as a reward for killing A-rank and S-rank monsters. Centurio Seals are one of the most important endgame currencies, so Hunts are (for better or worse) insanely popular at the moment. A Realm Reborn suffered a bit from the toxic culture that can develop around this highly competitive game feature, with some players feeling jilted when they miss a hunt and others feeling left out for all the out-of-game coordination that others use to monopolize the process. It’s somewhat surprising to see Hunts take on such importance after the issues in A Realm Reborn; if you hated the system in the base game, be warned that it’s important to the combat endgame again.
Even with disparate flaws and an intimidating grind for alt Jobs after your main Job has reached Level 60, Heavensward still presents a better RPG experience than A Realm Reborn. The story is much better, presentation is at an all-time high, and the dungeons are all a lot of fun. The grind will probably decrease in time, too–I suspect the main reason for it is to stop people from maxing out too fast then complaining there is no content to complete. With more content, including a new hardcore raid, just around the corner, it’s difficult to concretely saw how important the more pernicious aspects of the game, like the Hunts, will be in the long run. We must look at the present moment, to today. What we have is a gorgeous, stirring, mechanically solid, feature-rich expansion to what is, by my money, the best MMO in years.